The basics of responsible money and environmental management can be taught at an early age. Just outside in the yard is a promising place to start.
If every living thing has a purpose in the broader scheme of things, I think I have found a special role for the much-maligned dandelion.
Of course, dandelions, aside from their challenge to a gardener’s patience and perseverance, always have had a modest place in our lives. Their bright golden multi-petal flowers are a common feature in the springtime bouquets that toddlers, on their first tentative explorations around the yard, assemble and bring to mom or dad in exchange for a hug and kiss. Dandelion greens are the major ingredient in the ‘Boy Scout spinach’ cooked up as part of the requirements for earning a wilderness survival merit badge. And doesn’t every child, young or old alike, delight in puffing at the mature dandelion’s round snowy pods and watching the individual seeds parachute lazily to earth?
I submit, though, that there’s a loftier role for dandelions to play. They can also provide early lessons in responsible money and environmental management. For dandelions to make these contributions, all we need to do is create a market for them. I propose setting the price for dandelions at about a dollar a dozen.
I came to my conclusion about this loftier role for dandelions one recent Saturday morning when I found myself nursing a second cup of coffee at the front window of my home while watching my neighbor and his kids next door. The family had recently moved into the house, which had sat vacant for several months. The unkempt lawn and garden had struggled unsuccessfully to keep ahead of the weeds. While their father paced back and forth across his lawn spreading weed killer on the grass, the children and their new neighborhood friends ran about the yard as wild as the weeds. Every so often my neighbor paused to admonish them to stay off the newly treated grass.
It struck me that there ought to be a better way of handling the kids as well as the weeds. And then I remembered how.
The scene on my neighbor’s lawn recalled a similar setting from my youth. When growing up in the 1960s, a regular event for us kids – brothers, sisters and cousins - was a weekend visit to our grandparents’ home. It was a stately old dwelling with its surrounding flower garden, grassy lawn and, yes, weeds. Grandma’s solution to ridding the yard of weeds was not chemical, however, but economic. She encouraged us to go out and pull them up by hand.
“I’ll pay twenty-five cents a dozen for the dandelion plants you bring me from the lawn or the garden,” she announced one early spring weekend.
One of my cousins was the first to take up Grandma’s offer. Her earnings - about fifty cents from her initial efforts - Grandma placed in a green glass Mason jar. On the outside of the jar she attached a piece of white adhesive tape and penciled in my cousin’s name. Into the jar’s metal lid Grandma punched a slit large enough for coins to be inserted. She set the jar on the kitchen counter near her popular cookie tin. Next to it she placed similar jars, each with the name of one of us other three kids on it.
The sight of these empty jars next to that of our cousin with its two shiny quarters - the equivalent of a soft drink or a candy bar at the time - presented a challenge that was not lost on the rest of us. Soon grandma’s quarter-a-dozen bounty had us all becoming week-end weed pullers. Market forces had taken hold.
We learned the best time to ‘harvest’ our booty was after a drenching rain, when the soil was moist and most disposed to yield up the plant, tap root and all. We discovered how to work the plant free by grasping all the leaves and stems together and gently tugging. A hasty yank often left part of the root behind giving the plant a lease on life and leaving us with a disqualifying fistful of leaves. Small young weeds were as worthy of payment as fully grown adults which we knew they would become if unattended. Most important was to bag our quarry before it went to seed and spewed progeny across the yard.
Under pressure from our efforts and from the rising summer temperatures, the dandelions soon became scarce. In their place crabgrass and chickweed began to emerge. Grandma sent us out again to handle these new emerging nuisances and to keep deposits growing in our Mason jar banks.
With each of our weekend weed-pulling expeditions, Grandma’s yard became greener and our Mason jars heavier. Eventually, we withdrew our dandelion earnings from Grandma’s Mason-jar bank and with our parents’ encouragement and help we set up savings accounts in real banks. The sight of dimes, nickels and quarters piling up in the jars was replaced by watching savings grow in our passbook accounts. And as a new incentive and surprise, we discovered at year’s end that the bank added something called ‘interest’ to our balances. We were learning not only how to work for our money but also how our money could work for us.
The next year, the number of weeds had diminished significantly and earnings from our dandelion harvests were harder to come by. But that did not matter much to us. We had begun to graduate from pulling weeds to mowing lawns, delivering newspapers and baby-sitting as new sources of income and savings.
Grandma’s dandelion economics had propelled us into the world of money and finance. As an added dividend, we were learning ways to manage the environment responsibly. There are alternatives to chemicals for controlling weeds we also learned. Something as simple as hand weeding can achieve the same result as potentially harmful chemicals.
The legacy of Grandma’s love of the soil and her down-to-earth money management discipline lives on in us. One cousin even went on to start a plant nursery and florist business. For my part, I continue to include hand weeding as a regular part of yard-work.
I now have young grandchildren and soon the opportunity to apply the principles of dandelion economics to nudge them toward growing up ‘green’ and becoming financially responsible. I realize my task is not so easy. In today’s world many distractions compete for their time. I find I need to be as assertive as any television commercial in capturing the attention of the current generation and in enticing them into cutting dandelion deals with me.
Of course, the going rate for dandelions has changed considerably. I calculate that I need to offer about a dollar for a dozen weeds to adjust for today’s current cost of living. It now takes at least a dollar to buy the same 1960s twenty-five-cent soft drink or candy bar.
Still, I would advocate that creating a dandelion market can be money well invested, for parent or grandparent alike. And all it takes is some kids, a few dollars and a patch of grass with weeds.
No young kids or dandelion-infested yard of your own? No problem. Dandelion deals can be worked out in other settings beyond where you live and with kids other your own. Dandelions are also a plague in school yards and on the grassy lawns around places of worship. Both are places where chemical controls should be avoided. Sponsoring a dandelion pulling project with a school service club or church youth group can generate funds for their activities or for their next pizza party. Everyone benefits, the school or place of worship, the youth program, the environment and, most of all, the kids who discover how together they can apply ‘dandelion economics’ to make a difference.
Because dandelions are so ubiquitous, they can be unique tools for educating about economics and the environment. Making dandelions our allies and not our enemies is an opportunity that should be encouraged.
I’m anxious to promote my dollars-for-dandelions venture further. I think I’ll start by talking with my neighbor next door.
Thanks for reading AFTERTHOUGHTS! Subscribe for free to receive future essay posts. Phil Church